Library Gallery exhibit shows 120 years of how Sacramentans dressed – and fashion’s social impact
September 06, 2022
Sacramento State is opening its closet to unveil a vast historical collection of clothes and accessories so fabulous even a fashionista might be Hornet green with envy.
“Dressing Sacramento: 120 Years of Fashion,” on display in the University Library Gallery through Oct. 8, is the public’s first glimpse of the Sacramento State Costume Collection, which features apparel worn during different fashion eras, from the 1860s through the 1980s and beyond.
The collection includes a Civil War-era mourning gown, an intricately beaded “flapper” dress from the 1920s, lace gloves, pillbox hats, purses, shoes and jewelry, and scores more items.
“It’s a hidden treasure,” said Professor Dong Shen, Fashion Merchandising and Management (FASH) program coordinator. “There are so many stories and so much history embedded in those pieces.
“We have a responsibility to present them to a bigger audience.”
Housed in a windowless, environmentally controlled storage room in Mariposa Hall, the collection grew as faculty, staff, community members, and local businesses donated more than 500 pieces over the decades.
But they were never cataloged or shown to the public.
“Our department accesses it all the time,” said FASH Lecturer Taylor Anderson. “Instructors will go into the closets of the collection and bring out pieces, but mainly for the purpose of design reference or showing students certain techniques or construction.
“But we’d really love to showcase it to the greater Sacramento community and the rest of the Sac State community, not just students taking our classes in the fashion program.”
The moment Shen laid her eyes on the collection more than 20 years ago, she knew she wanted to put it on display.
“I was dying to do something with it,” said Shen, who teaches fashion and consumer-related courses in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. “But it was not my area of expertise.”
Shen said she was just waiting for someone such as Anderson, whose background is in the history and sociology of fashion.
They began cataloging the collection in fall 2018, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit before an exhibit could open. It was repeatedly postponed until “Dressing Sacramento” finally opened in late August.
The exhibit includes stunning pieces dating back as far as 1860, taking visitors through the Roaring Twenties, World War II, the turbulent 1960s, and excess of the ’80s, before ending with outfits created by Sac State students in 2019.
“Dressing Sacramento” does more than spotlight fashion trends.
Paired with archival photos of local people and places, the exhibit puts fashion into historic, social, and cultural context, such as a Prohibition-era, loose, drop-waisted dress designed to swing to jazz music at dance halls such as the M Street Cafe in Sacramento’s old Japantown.
“Fashion is something that is so easily dismissed because we just take it for granted,” Anderson said. “But really, fashion is a medium and a platform for discussing so many aspects of our culture, our society, our history, our politics, and human behavior.”
Center for Sacramento History curator Veronica Kandl helped Anderson select photos of Sacramentans by providing suggestions and giving her access to an online database of images.
“I’m just really happy we’re starting to collaborate,” Kandl said. “We like to get our collection used and to collaborate with schools.
“We’ve worked with Sac State interns before, but never from the fashion program. So, to me, it’s really exciting. I like to see our collection used more, and I think it’s going to be really interesting for people to see.”
A nearly $3,000 grant from University Enterprises, Inc. paid for photo enlargements and acid-free, archival materials to make displays that would not damage the exhibit pieces’ fragile fabrics.
Many of the historic pieces don’t fit contemporary mannequins, so Anderson and her students had to build special dress forms with 20-inch waists and an S-shaped silhouette popular during Edwardian times.
One student even constructed a historically accurate cage crinoline and petticoat to go underneath a handsewn mourning dress that dates to the 1860s.
“Without these structures, the dress just won’t lay right. It might work, but it’s not going to look the way it looked when it walked down the street,” Anderson said.
Story continues below photo.
The exhibit also is a way for the University to share the collection with the community that donated all the pieces. Shen and Anderson said they hope schools and senior centers will organize trips to the exhibit.
“When our students see the work, they see the value in the fascinating facts behind those pieces,” Shen said. “Can you imagine if we bring in different age groups, like seniors, who can see the history they lived through? Or the impact it could have on high school and junior high kids?”
The FASH program is working to catalog the entire Sacramento State Costume Collection and make it available online for the public.
“Dressing Sacramento: 120 Years of Fashion” runs through Oct. 8. A reception will be 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, with opening remarks at 6 p.m.
The University Library Gallery is open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon - 4 p.m. Saturday.
For more information, call (916) 278-4189.
Looking for a Faculty Expert?
Contact University Communications